An Education: Psychologist Uses Group Therapy to Help Teen Patients Understand Their Anxieties

An Education: Psychologist Uses Group Therapy to Help Teen Patients Understand Their Anxieties

Cathy*, a junior at a suburban public high school, has dealt with generalized anxiety disorder for years.

A bright girl with a bright future, Cathy has landed several internships outside of school. She is active in after-school clubs and holds leadership positions within them. Following her freshman year, two summers ago, Cathy began seeing Dr. Bethany J. Price, a clinical psychologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem, for private therapy sessions to help her deal with her anxiety disorder.

“The nicest thing about an individual session,” said Price, “is that we can really dig into the nuances of that particular person. How does anxiety show up in their life?”

Anxiety disorder can induce panic attacks, the symptoms of which include heart palpitations, dizziness, shaking and fatigue. Partial panic symptoms alone can cause extreme discomfort, especially in a social or classroom environment. While better access to resources and increased knowledge have improved treatment of adolescent anxiety disorders, the progress is counterbalanced by a Millennial cult of multitasking, increased social comparison through media saturation and heightened academic competition.

Another hurdle unique to adolescent anxiety is that, unlike adults, they’re encountering stress factors for the first time without the remediation practice that adults have acquired through experience. By nature of being minors, they also have less control over what they do and how they do it, and are subject to a variety of variables such as home life, the quality of which is beyond their control.

The hydra-headed nature of adolescent stress created a unique challenge for Dr. Price.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for adolescents to see past the daily stressors, and our goal is to teach them skills to cope with anxiety, no matter where it’s coming from.”

The need for simple, prescribed tools and an increased knowledge of the disorder inspired Price to create a four-session group focused on reducing symptoms of anxiety for adolescents last spring.

As the date of the first group meeting approached, Price suggested that Cathy give it a shot.

“It [the group] was definitely helpful,” says Cathy, sitting at the kitchen table of her family’s suburban home after school. “We talked about avoiding [stressful] situations and letting people know when you get stressed. Basic things. … It was more like [getting] information on what anxiety disorder is so that when I was in private therapy with her [Price], I had a better understanding of what it was that we were dealing with.”

Cathy is not alone. Price explained that all of her adolescent patients view the group, formally titled the Solutions for Anxiety—a cognitive behavioral therapy group—as “more of a class setting where they can sit and see a more organized presentation of how anxiety works and how to counteract it.”

An additional benefit of the group setting is that it helps normalize anxiety, whose alienating, self-conscious side effects can sting the hardest at an age when fitting in is paramount.

“When you have adolescents that are coming in, what they perceive is that everyone else is fine, and they’re the only ones who feel like they can’t handle it,” Price says. “I think it’s very powerful for them to come in and see that they’re not alone.”

The group covers an array of exercises and topics that help teens understand and work through their anxieties. These range from relaxation skills, deep breathing and even simple techniques for how to start a conversation with a person in a social or classroom setting, thereby short-circuiting or even avoiding situations that might be fraught with angst.

One of the most important goals of the group is to change the way Price’s patients think about anxiety.

“The way we’re thinking about things greatly influences our level of anxiety,” says Price. “Just as we’re habitual beings when it comes to our behaviors—whether we bite our nails or crack our knuckles—we’re also very habitual when it comes to our thoughts. So if we start thinking in this magnifying, catastrophic way, often that becomes a habit, and we continue thinking that way. So, my goal with the people I work with is to help them slow down and recognize where their thinking is rather distorted and to look at the reality of the situation.”

A second, expanded, six-session group will begin October 15.

Interest has grown since last spring: Nine teenagers plan on attending the fall session, which is up from the last group’s six. Price hopes that even more teens will take advantage of the groups, although she stresses the need to keep them intimate, with a limit of 12 members.

Cathy believes that the group has helped her to make sense of her own anxiety and given her a context in which to understand it. “It helped me to not be afraid when all of a sudden you get paralyzed and you can’t do anything,” says Cathy. “To understand that’s normal and that you can work through it.”

*Name has been changed by request.